Author Archives: Jack

Ask any Scotsman

Really any regular Scottish bloke, if asked what is not to be missed while visiting his country, will get that far away look in his eyes and softly say “Glencoe.” It’s quintessentially Scotland, not Bronze Age Crofts or stoney castles. Turns out that it’s not far away. Really nothing is truly far away in a country as small as Scotland. It might take you awhile, what with roundabouts every half a mile and share and share alike one lane roads, but it’s not far. So this story is about pictures. Pictures of the Scottish soul.

A Scotsman would smile and say this is normal Scottish weather, but I call it a rising damp.

No one really knows how to build a Glencoe turf house. There are no carefully preserved examples and if you examine the materials mostly found on site you’d know why. Stone, turf cut in a fetching herringbone pattern, and as little wood as possible. The stone ends up in a pile of rubble, the wood rots away, and the turf, well the turf ends up as mud. So while my guess is not as good as theirs, after due diligence and research they’re still guessing. This is a recreation using over 2,000 wooden rods woven into a basket-like structure. They took the wooden rods with the when they moved because trees were scarce. The researchers reckon they’ve got it pretty close. They examined current construction techniques in the area and researched tendencies used during the times they figure it probably looked something like this. It’s still pretty cool.

It was difficult to tear ourselves away after such stunning beauty but we knew we had a rainy drive to what is now known as the £15 lady’s parkup on Loch Linnhe. Even the parkups are beautiful around here.

I think there’s something to this Scottish soul thing.

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We get the keys

I woke up and immediately had one of those where-the-hell-am-I moments. The room was missing most of its furniture, and pulling aside the blackout curtains didn’t help much. It was sunny but cold with lots of traffic. I picked up the plastic room key and everything but the lack of furniture fell into place. Today is Campervan Day, and we’re in Glasgow. Unfortunately, the mechanic doing the servicing on the van was hungover from a football game and apparently he was moving kinda slow. We scheduled official handover for 1900 hours hoping maybe the frenzied Glasgow rush hour traffic would be a bit more kind at that hour. We booked another night in our sparse room because we weren’t ready to hit the road and the hotel said we can park our van in their lot.

Next order of business was breakfast. Nothing was open for blocks. Finally we settled for a place called Julie’s Sandwiches, no waiting, no chairs, just across the street. At the appointed hour we Ubered over to get the final instructions, got the keys and I climbed into the driver’s seat.

The 6 speed manual transmission Fiat Ducato drove nicely. It’s amazing how many vehicles have manual transmissions in the UK; it’s got to be around 70%. We made it back to the Travelodge despite the rain, safely parked for the night. Heavy sigh of relief.

Running errands in a twenty foot long camper van is a little nerve wracking at first but that’s exactly what we needed to do this morning. We knew that we’d have to do it before leaving Glasgow where you can find a concentration of shops where you only need to park once. What we really needed was an IKEA new homemaker startup kit. Two of everything, throw it in to a big blue tarp bag. We made do with stops at Tesco, B&M, Marks and Spencer, some kind of Home Center, and TK Max. We felt pretty well equipped.

In the meantime Marce found a parkup in what Europeans call wild camping, in America its called boondocking, meaning no services, self contained vehicles only. We hoped that the 180 watt solar panel on our roof would keep us in power over night. There were two routes up to the small car park, high above the Clyde. We chose the less steep route, pulled in and gaped at the view.

Our first wild camping and we get to wake up to this view. Not bad.

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A nice relaxing train ride

First dear readers, you’re going to want a little back story. When we arrived at Heathrow back in April we decided to keep luggage handling and missed connections to a minimum so why not keep everything on rails? We spent an hour on the tube to King’s Cross station, where we’d catch a train all the way to Sheffield, then pick up a cheap rental car. All things considered, an excellent plan. Not as comfortable as you might imagine, nevertheless it worked very well until an unintelligible message delivered at breakneck speed (people of Europe, please slow down) came over the intercom on the train. We’d been talking to a nice young man who reacted negatively and stood up frowning.

“Here, I’ll help you with all your bags, we’ve been terminated!” he said.

The loudspeaker continued to emit garbled noise and our friend could see we were spent and uncomprehending. He told us to stay put and he’d find out what to do. It turns out there was a jumper down the line and we were going no further on these tracks. We were rerouted to another train and our friend and another young man helped with our luggage, got us settled, and stayed with us until they were sure we’d be alright.

After a long day of traveling we finally made it to our destination and come to think of it, we nearly always do.

Four weeks later we planned the reverse: return the rental car and hop on a train. On paper it looked easy.

Car Return Day found us approximately one hundred miles away from Sheffield with a nice relaxing plan. My goodness, things were going swimmingly. With over 2,000 miles driving under my belt I expected nothing less.

Full English in the morning, easy car drop off, Uber to the train station with luggage, coffee and a Danish, and soon we were relaxing in our reserved seats on a clean and comfortable train. We were heading north to Glasgow and our campervan, soaking up the scenery as it glided by.

Somewhere before Manchester I heard a familiar message over the loudspeaker. The train stopped and out we tumbled with all our luggage onto an elevated platform cold enough to be New York in January. Another jumper, incident under investigation and the tracks to Glasgow were closed. What are the odds? Two trains, two jumpers. Our fellow passengers shrugged. I guess it happens a lot.

They must teach their loudspeaker announcers how to garble any message but we think we heard “platform 9.” The magical thinking was that, sure we’re going North to Glasgow but York, in the wrong direction, has a bigger station and you might have a better chance to catch a train maybe all the way to Glasgow.

Just as our feet hit the platform in York a railroad employee yelled, “Passengers to Glasgow, please hurry to platform (garbled.) The train is about to depart.”

It’s a large grand station. We tore off with the rest of the dispossessed Glasgow passengers, gasping as we dragged our luggage. Up the stairs and down the stairs and we might be heading for platform 9 and 3/4 for all we knew.

Finally Marce ran ahead and found the bloody thing. I didn’t care any more. I chucked the luggage into the train and climbed aboard as the thing started to move. Wait, we’re going East! Not North! We were heading East, all the way to the coast, then north following the sea, stopping at every small town up to Edinburgh, then west to Glasgow. And no cushy reserved seats.

I’m a little unclear about the rest of the trip. Something about an Uber, a Travelodge and a room that looked like it had been robbed of most of its furniture, dinner out of a vending machine in the lobby, a bed.

Tomorrow we pick up our new home and that’s all I could think about.

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It’s a sure thing

Discussing our poor luck with castles over a home cooked full Scottish breakfast, Jan, our diminutive Irish landlady, at least I think she said her name was Jan, said, in her heavy Irish brogue, “Well you needn’t go far. We’ve our own just over in the village, don’t ye know.” I’m pretty sure that’s what she said. It was something like Closeburn.

We punched our best guess into Google maps and sure enough a pin appeared on the screen. What could go wrong? We cranked up our trusty Vauxhall and plotted a course to our very own castle. Basic rule of thumb should you find yourself driving in Scotland is when you do find yourself on a path that is too narrow to fit your car between the weeds you are lost and it’s time to consider extricating yourself. Well, that’s our newly revised rule. It started out fine.

I missed the first turn. I mean it was so improbable and narrow that I was sure it couldn’t lead to a castle. Marce said they hold events at this place. Not to worry, Google plotted a new workaround that completely circumnavigated the village. The closer we got to the pin the more narrow the road became, following the familiar pattern. (We have no photos of this.) Now we’re down to muddy narrow two track heading down towards a dip at a turn where, if I’m any judge, some other idiot became mired in mud.

I could see a fancy wrought iron gate just beyond. That’s got to be it. You see how this works? We judged the mud wrestling pool as passable and didn’t slow down until we found ourselves in somebody’s courtyard. I did take note as we passed that the gate was chained and padlocked. Closed. Waving politely we motored on through, eventually finding the narrow road that I missed in the first place.

We decided this afternoon’s adventure had to be a sure thing. Caerlaverock Castle, that’s the ticket. Famous, moated, triangular, medieval stronghold walls with a gorgeous renaissance palace within those walls. In short, a “please exit by the gift shop” kinda place. And we even heard rumors of overnight campervan parking! Worth the hour drive while the authorities make life difficult with regulations to buying the camper van.

Never ones to follow directions, first we entered via the gift shop which featured actual stone carvings from the castle.

As we made our way towards this amazing castle pleasantly nestled down in the valley below us, we noticed an uncomfortable amount of fencing around the structure.

We reached the drawbridge and were crestfallen to read the sad news. Closed. It seems the structure is unstable. We could walk the perimeter though.

At various points along the path Marce found the augmented reality plaques. She dutifully downloaded the app and watched every one of the animated characters who told what life was like in the castle.

You can visit the foundation of the original castle which had man made canals to the sea back when sea levels were much higher.

Nice idea, but apparently the castle flooded and the sea was destroying it. It had to be abandoned and rebuilt on higher ground.

So let’s see, I think that leaves our castle record at 0-4 attempts. We will press on regardless! We are Escape Velocity.

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It’s Party Time

I wouldn’t say that we were finished jumping through hoops exactly, but with the camper van under contract it felt like the ban on having fun was officially lifted. Most of what was left to do involved a lot of waiting and as our final act of contrition, the circus of returning the car all the way back to Sheffield and then returning to Glasgow via train with luggage in tow and perhaps a little more waiting at the Travelodge of Glasgow. Trains have not been kind to us, but really, what could go wrong. This leaves us free to…wait for it, Coddiwomple!

Yes there’s gas in the car, but castles are awaiting. First a stop at Bowling Harbour where the end of a canal terminates with several locks to dam up enough water for a small marina while leaking the rest into the Clyde.

It does this old sailor’s soul a lot of good to see this clever boat harbour.

Pressing on regardless we pointed the hood or bonnet of our Vauxhall mini suv towards Drumlanrig Castle, a 17th century number with, it says here, a lavish interior, featuring paintings by Rembrandt and DaVinci among many other works of art.


The Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch are still in residence at the Queensberry Estate. After a long and winding path through deep dark forest, We found it…closed.

We continued south and ran into this Burns memorial.

I don’t think anyone has ever done an accurate count of how many Robert Burns memorials there are but this one is quite substantial. It’s now an art gallery. Closed.

In the meantime Marce booked us into a charming garden cottage to deal with substantial admin on the camper van. This will be our view for the next few days.

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Coddiwomple

They say that you’ll know it when you see it and after six hours driving up to Glasgow, fighting through post-football game traffic, rounding a corner we saw it. And we knew it. Big in a small kind of way, newish but with a just broken in vibe.

After confirming the particulars and a tough bargaining session where we refused to pay one pence over full asking price, we shook hands. Watching a half dozen campervans disappear out from under you changes your perspective on who has the power in these things. We did at least get the owner to throw in a fresh M.O.T. inspection and service. A few hundred pounds of cash hand money and a promise of a larger deposit to take it off the market and the deal was on.

We were overjoyed, but we couldn’t just move in and drive away. Oh no. This is going to take some bureaucratic maneuvering. More on that later.

We had to stick around town while the sale was finalized but all the hotels were booked for the aforementioned football game so Marce found, as she described it, an old pub and a room with a view over the river Clyde. Who could resist? Staying within a few miles of wherever the campervan lives for the moment seemed to make sense. What could go wrong?

We quickly found the Ferry Inn. Marce went to reconnoiter and entered a heaving press of young locals crammed shoulder to shoulder blowing off steam after a hard work week. Pardon me-ing our way through the crowd with luggage in tow was an athletic event and we had to shout over the loud music to communicate with the barmaid checking us in. I noticed a guy setting up a small DJ booth painted in day glow with “Ooh, Baby Baby” sprayed across the front.

We schlepped our way to the second floor and the promised room with a view over the river Clyde. By that time the DJ had started work, replacing the pub playlist with a continuous chugga chugga of dance tracks.

We thought dinner at the Indian restaurant down the street might be a good idea, but when we returned to the pub an hour later the party was really getting started. Back upstairs some kind of primordial sympathetic resonance turned our room into the inside of a huge bass drum. As the night wore on the volume inevitably shot up and I had concerns for the old pub structure. The vibration was such that my eyes couldn’t focus like an old TV without proper signal. Objects in the room shimmered and blinked with the booming vibration as pictures rattled against the walls and tilted. Everything seemed askew. The bed felt like it might vibrate across the floor, a funhouse version of the 50s motel “magic fingers.” Were the walls warping in and out? Marce was giddy with relief at finding our campervan, and nearly hysterical laughing at our situation.

Not me. I had to find a way to get some sleep. I’d hoped the DJ’s amp was only on 11 but I think he found an even more violent level.

Ear buds, a pile of pillows, and exhaustion seemed to do the trick.

The next thing I heard was a loud boom and then another, with a cascade of explosions to follow. We hopped out of bed as brilliant colors lit up the room.

From our window we could see there was an event at the private club next door and fireworks were part of the party. It went on for a good ten minutes, lighting up the river Clyde and our room with the view. What a way to celebrate finding our campervan!

At this point we noticed that the cacophony of sound was silent. Ooh Baby Baby, profoundly deaf by this point, probably thinks his kit is still working but no one else can hear him anymore either.

In the morning we thought we’d sneak out and grab some breakfast but the outside gate was padlocked and we didn’t have the combination. We were locked in until the pub opened at 11.

Eventually someone showed up with a mouth full of apologies and we were free.

Free to coddiwomple.

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Stasis

Ok, so where was I? Oh yes, after all thefrenetic activity of selling Escape Velocity, shipping our entire worldly goods to America, getting last minute PCR tests in time to catch a plane to Tanzania with a two week African safari and quick hop over to Zanzibar, we finally made it to New Jersey where, after more PCR tests we were ensconced into the safety of our family. Any one of which events, by rights, could have been an individual blog post.

We voluntarily chose to set up shop in the family’s comfortable basement where our noise and clutter would be less annoying to our patient and sympathetic hosts. And there we sat. After redistributing everything we own, the full weight of the loss of our home and adventurous lifestyle began to envelop our subterranean existence. Seemingly powerless we descended into a funk lower than where we slept every night.

We tried to ameliorate the loss with rental cars and short trips to see the kids, Gettysburg, and the sights around Old Tappan.

Too many options and no clear direction emerged from our brainstorming sessions. It wasn’t like us. Timing or cash pressures seemed to preclude just about every way we turned. Touring the USA in a camper van in times of Covid seemed to me to be the safest and easiest but Marce was quite resistant, having already done a lot of domestic travel. Prices for class B camper vans in the US had ballooned into the stratosphere, we’re told not due to greed but Covid. Be that as it may, we weren’t having it! Europe, where camper vans are very popular, had many choices and reasonable prices and the UK even better. Marce setup our google nest hub to scroll through photos of our adventures just to remind us of who we are and what we’ve done.

The hunt was on.

Weeks spilled over into months spent pouring over terrible, poorly organized websites with SOLD emblazoned over 80 percent of their outrageously priced offerings until we found ourselves mindlessly wordle-ing or descending the inevitable rabbit hole of cat videos.

It turns out it’s very difficult to buy a camper van in Europe! Eventually Marce came up with the name of a small dealership that had great reviews and who agreed to help us. “That’s it,” I said, ”we’re going to England.”

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Driving through a graveyard

We woke up to a happy, sunny but nosehair freezing kind of day. After a quick stop for a couple of McSliders we retraced our route back to the Gettysburg welcome center. Marce had learned about a self -guided tour in a national parks app from the welcoming ranger, even though he seemed to be more concerned about any weapons or explosives we might be concealing under our voluminous heavy coats. The self guided tour actually starts in the town of Gettysburg so a little more backtracking was required.

As soon as we pulled up to the number one sign the app apparently knows that you’ve just pulled up and is keen to tell its story. Unlike most shiny pants installations it actually works.

It’s such beautiful peaceful countryside as you sit there, warm in your car while the voice of a faceless ranger describes the carnage that occurred just over that pleasant ridge, yeah, the one with a dozen cannon facing down the rise.

Really you’ve never seen so many cannons. Monuments and placards were spread out over the fields but more concentrated at the cool bits, where I’m sure something horrendous happened.

And then you come to Confederate Avenue. That’s where, oddly enough, twentieth century Southerners planted monuments memorializing their glorious struggle and they’ve been working overtime. The place is chock-a-block, practically paved with the things, mostly ironically placed on the sites where the Union troops defended their territory. However, I noticed a dozen or so Union cannon on the ridge — there’s at least a dozen on every ridge — facing down the rise in the general direction where the Confederates attacked from. When you win you get to call the tune, but the Confederates seem determined to write their own verses.

We drive from point to point, stopping to listen to what happened in each location. This is classic Pennsylvania countryside with gentle rolling hills, hardwood trees, and grassy meadows. It really is beautiful.

That is with one exception. Little Round Top. After the Confederate troops fought their way through the boulders of the Devil’s Den, they faced a frontal charge up this hill into the face of rifle and cannon fire.

It was a big ask and they knew it, suicidal unless by chance the Union forces were so depleted that they’d leave the hill relatively undefended. That’s exactly what happened. A small force of observers and semaphore communication officers were all there was on top of the mound.

This is where the Union was waiting at the top.

But with incredible bravery, those relatively junior Union officers rallied enough forces to save the day. But it was a close thing.

Marce is paying her respects at the massive Pennsylvania Memorial and looking for the names of her many ancestors who fought in the battle.

Finally you arrive at the site of Picket’s Charge on a hill above Gettysburg where the Flower of the South was spent. General Lee, gambling that one more all-out effort might cause the Union to collapse, sent his army on a frontal assault, charging up the hill directly into intensive cannon and rifle fire. The Union Army was damaged but held just the same. It was another close call but generally considered to have turned the tide for the Union. You can learn more about the entire three-day battle here.

Enough with all this slaughter. By this time you’ll be getting as hungry as Yours Truly was, so might I recommend the famous 3 Hogs BBQ? It’s worth the trip.

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Let the fun begin

As a kid if you’d grown up in Pennsylvania you’ve been to Gettysburg, site of one of the pivotal battles of the American Civil War. One could be forgiven for saying, “Been there, done that.” But you really haven’t. Apparently over the decades since I was last there they’ve made a few improvements. Let me just say at this juncture that nobody does mass battlefield carnage better than the good old U. S. of A.

First, the totally restored, brilliantly colored cyclorama is now housed in a new building which finally presents the 377 feet long by 42 feet high canvas, it says here, as originally designed and painted by Paul Philippoteaux in the 1880s. It depicts the final day of the battle, and especially Picket’s Charge, the last Confederate assault that sealed their fate.

The theatre is entered from below on an escalator and as you rise up to viewing level you’re enveloped in a predawn misty blue sky.

Real wagons, shrubbery and field pieces are artistically arranged in the foreground like figurants in a play, but still blend seamlessly into the perspective of the cyclorama.

Soon a few clashes start up and lights begin to flash, cannons boom with smoke rising over the area where the fun is commencing. Let the carnage begin!

If you’ve never visited a cyclorama (there aren’t that many left in the world) it’s the original multimedia presentation, where the audience stands in the middle and lights draw your attention to various parts of the painting while a narrator tells the story with a backing track of music and sound effects.

The action of the battle ranged over a wide area and it becomes obvious that it’s many skirmishes over miles of varied terrain.

This has everything, a cast of over 150,000 men maneuvering for advantage, cavalry, and just to allay any fears that this exercise is nothing but savagery, brother killing brother, we have booming artillery and a crowd favorite, frontal charges up the hill into the teeth of semi rapid rifle fire. I think that covers it. Lovely stuff.

The artist Paul Philippoteaux pictured behind a tree with sword drawn

For those of us who still have not had enough there’s an excellent museum just below the cyclorama. I always like to gaze at the real stuff and wonder how you could dispatch so many fellow Americans one at a time, in so short a time. As an aid to understanding it all there are several excellent short films to watch, some of them produced by the History Channel.

I caution you to take some sort of tracking device or you will get lost, just as Yours Truly did. I promised to mention the guard who found me, in the blog, so . . . Apparently I’m just no good anymore without a GPS chart plotter.

The weather had turned cold, wet and nasty so finding ourselves ahead of schedule for a change, we decided to return tomorrow to tour the battlefield by car.

Editor’s note: Most Pennsylvania natives can claim veterans or casualties of the battle of Gettysburg in their family tree. In my family, my great grandfather, an immigrant from Germany, was recruited among many other new arrivals to bolster the Union effort. He played the cornet and spent most of the rest of his life in the US Army as a bugler. He died in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. This photo was taken long after the Civil War was over. —Marce

Recruitment poster in German
Charles T. Boettger a few years before he died.

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Zanzibar

While many of our friends are fighting their way up the Red Sea or around the Cape of good Hope, we were fighting the ever-evolving, mercurial Covid rules while trying to travel via air. So far we have prevailed mainly due to the dogged perseverance of Marce. It seems that traveling by sailing yacht gives one lots of time to work things out, while you have to work well ahead when jet airliners are involved. And that brings us to todays topic, Zanzibar.

We found accommodations at a stately old hotel, well preserved, out of the way, but near the ocean in Stone Town. Just the kind of place I like.


You couldn’t have planned a more disorienting circuitous route through the catacomb like alleyways that make up a cab ride through Stone Town. We haven’t a clue how to navigate this place and GPS was really having trouble. There is not one 90 degree turn in the entire place. Just down the street I noticed a seaside cafe so I thought we’d start there. Couldn’t get lost with this one.


It might’ve been me that said let’s go up a block and then return to our hotel on a parallel alley. There are no parallel alleys. As darkness settles over the town we turned a corner, tail dragging the gravy, expecting another disappointment but there she was the old Beyt Al Salaam.

To this day I have no idea how we managed that.
Getting lost and found would be the official plan of our days.

Marce hiding from the intense sun while trying to wake up our GPS!

I’ve always taken photos of doorways all over the world, and I find these an amazing similarity to the doors of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.


I guess you’d be remiss to pass on buying spices at Spice Island but Bandaneira in Indonesia was better where you’d find a yard full of cloves or cinnamon bark drying on a tarp in somebody’s front yard. That’s the perfume of Spice Island.


Mr. Mango’s claim to fame is that Anthony Bourdain ate here and pronounced the Zanzibar Pizza as ‘weird, wonderful.” Marce agreed.


We had a tip from a friend for this one, four flights of rickety stairs and the view of Stone Town was wonderful, and so was the food.

Wandering these ancient alleyways was endlessly fascinating. The key is to find yourself perpetually lost but with no particular place to go and just let it all wash over you.

Lost and found

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